I live not far from Xi’an’s Botanical Gardens [Zhíwù Yuán/植物园], which are located behind Shǎnxī Normal University, but I haven’t taken a trip over there for a while. This is not because I have anything against fine varieties of plant life, I actually had a couple of temporary jobs working on horticultural nurseries when I was younger, and if all else failed I would probably go back to it. There are not too many things quite as meditative and peaceful as watering plants on a glorious summer morning.
I have also always enjoyed visiting public gardens, from Kew and Wentworth to Brisbane’s own Botanics, via Córdoba and Marakesh. However, on my last visit to Xi’an’s variety of Botanical Garden it did feel as if a lot more could be done with the space they have. Now, this seems to have changed, although not quite in the way one would imagine.
This week, my camera-clicking sidekick, Sir G. Blackett of Wells, and I decided that we should put down our coffee cups and see if we could catch Xi’an’s short Spring in full bloom. It was not, though, a multi-coloured array of flora and fauna that ended up capturing our attention. It was a particular sub-specie of Chinese marital ritual that we observed, wandered around, pointed at, discussed and took pictures of. It was the ritual known as the pre-marriage photo shoot.
It is not an exaggeration to say that shrub, flower and tree life is no longer the focus of attention. Delicate planting procedures, rare plant species, and flowers in full seasonal bloom are now simply a backdrop for the more important business of getting young Chinese couples to create the most unnatural poses possible. For those unaware, as part of the wedding celebrations here in China, couples pay a few thousand yuan for a professional photo studio to snap exceptionally contrived poses in generally natural environments, the Botanical Gardens being one such location.
The happy couple will usually get a choice of 3-4 outfits to change into, 1 or 2 of which will be traditional wedding costume, plus a couple of casual but quite garish alternatives. Once taken, the pictures will be placed in one or two photograph albums, which are usually the size and weight of ancient stone steles, and adorned with exquisitely flowery Chinglish. A couple of choice pictures will be blown up, with one about the size of those street-side ads that have just been banned in Beijing, to be hung above the marital bed.
During our visit we were to discover at every turn, between every flowerbed, and nestled within every leafy grove a romantic couple being serenaded by a young photographer and his entourage. The latter scampered about offering the wedded couple a constant stream of platitudes and directions. I will just add a small selection of the pictures we took, and suggest that a trip to the Botanical Gardens here in Xi’an is probably worth a few hours, though not necessarily for the plant life. This pre-marriage ritual is, I am told, a daily occurrence.
The entrance price for the gardens is 20 yuan. The gardens open from 8-6 and are located on Cuìhuá Lù, directly behind Shaanxi Normal University, which itself is located on Cháng’ān Lù. It is a stone’s throw from the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. If you walked directly west from the pagoda, passing the various small restaurants and shops on Yàntǎ Xīlù, and then turned left at the first junction you would be on Cuìhuá Lù. The gardens are probably a half an hour walk down the road, on your left.